From its very first line, "Man in the Mirror" isn't very subtle in delivering its social message: it's time for each of us to "make a change" in the world we live in.
There's no denying the earnest message of "Man in the Mirror": improve yourself, improve the world… or "be the change you wish to see in the world," if we want to borrow the common bumper-sticker phrasing (which is actually, of course, a famous saying of Mahatma Gandhi's).
But how sincere, really, was Michael Jackson in singing this ballad of social change? After all, MJ didn't pen the words; the song was actually written by backup singer Siedah Garrett and producer Glen Ballard. So did Jackson mean it when he said it was time to look in the mirror and make that change?
It's hard to know what's inside a man's soul, but there's no question that the Jackson family, and especially the superstar Michael, was well situated to make social statements. A child star with the Jackson 5 from 1969 on, Jackson had become, by the late 1980s, "The King of Pop": he was a superstar about as high profile as any singer, ever. The "Man in the Mirror" video makes it clear that Jackson wanted to connect the song explicitly in fans' minds with themes of racial justice, civil rights, and the problems of poverty. And whatever his other motives may have been, Jackson was known for being active in his charitable giving and involvement with social justice.
Jackson donated proceeds from sales of the "Man in the Mirror" single to a camp for children with cancer, and ticket sales from one of the shows on the Bad tour went to an organization working against child abuse. In 1985, Jackson's "We are the World," recorded with Lionel Richie and a slew of other stars, served as the centerpiece for a large fundraising effort against poverty in Africa. Jackson founded the now-defunct Heal the World Foundation in 1992, and since his death has been recognized for a legacy of charitable giving.
Money was tight for the Jackson family in Gary, Indiana, in the 1960s, and as a little kid Michael Jackson may actually have seen kids starving in the street. But Michael himself was dangerously wealthy from the time the Jackson 5 broke it big, when he was just 11 years old (in one interview he recounts his father handing him checks for upwards of $200,000 when he was twelve, and saying, "what do you want to do with this?").
Jackson lived through an era of American history when there was plenty of economic misfortune to go around. The 1970s brought nationwide recession, inflation and unemployment. And while things improved overall in the 1980s, ruinous economic conditions continued to wrack most American inner cities. By the time "Man in the Mirror" hit the radio in 1987, urban America had endured a decade and a half of economic misery.
At the same time, Michael Jackson himself didn't have much first-hand experience with poverty. The legendary performer is said to have lived in a bubble almost his entire life. About the same time he recorded Bad, he was busy constructing his extravagant and secluded California retreat, known as the Neverland Ranch. Neverland was a mansion and manor where Jackson lived surrounded by the childlike fruits of his riches, building amusement park rides and keeping bizarre pets, including the famous chimp Bubbles. Jackson, who loved the idea of being forever young, increasingly retreated to Neverland as his career faltered in the 1990s and 2000s. In terms of the lifestyles of the homeless and derelict, Jackson was hardly the expert.
This is an enigmatic line that uses a hurt willow tree as a metaphor for a broken individual.
Songwriter Siedah Garrett reports that when she sat down to write "Man in the Mirror" with Glen Ballard, the song just came to her, even quicker than she could write it down. Sometimes the best metaphors emerge that way—without over-thinking the imagery, Garrett created a passing image of a scarred willow tree, juxtaposing it rather powerfully with the more clichéd image of an individual's broken heart.
MJ once told an interviewer that he hated mirrors, and hated looking in them. But it goes without saying that the public, the media, and Jackson himself were tirelessly obsessed with his ever-changing face.
Jackson, a star since the age of eleven, was a secretive and intensely private soul for much of his life. But in an interview with Martin Bashir for the 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson, Jackson revealed a longstanding dislike for mirrors, and for the public focus on his face. "I would never look in the mirror," he recalled of his teenage years. "Ever. I would turn off all the lights." He tells of a traumatic and abused childhood in which his father, Joe Jackson, beat the children during their rehearsals. Michael's father also derided the boy's looks as he went through adolescence, criticizing in particular his nose, which the father said was too big.
Beginning with these family troubles, Jackson's relationship to his own image was always deeply troubled. After the release of his biggest hit album, Thriller, Jackson signed a huge deal with Pepsi-Cola, only to injure himself disastrously while filming a commercial, when on-stage fireworks lit his hair on fire. Facial burns and scarring reputedly led Jackson into his first round of plastic surgeries, and rumors abound as to exactly how many surgeries Jackson underwent in the decades that followed. There is no question that his appearance changed dramatically over the years.
Another, more insidious rumor surrounding Jackson's face stemmed from his lifelong struggle with vitiligo, a skin disorder that lightens the skin in random splotches. Beginning the early 90s, Jackson was accused of intentionally lightening his skin in an effort to look white. Jackson's autopsy confirmed for once and for all that the singer really did suffer from the skin-lightening disorder. Jackson also had lupus, an autoimmune disease that can cause weakness and hair loss. Towards the end of his life, Jackson was often seen in public wearing a surgical mask, which may have been his way of making a statement about all the focus on his face. Given his history of disease, injury, and struggles with self-esteem, combined with perpetual and intense public scrutiny, it is hardly a wonder that the man in the mirror had body image issues.
Often people accused of abuse, especially those accused in public, promise to change their ways—but Jackson was not one of them.
At the time he first performed "Man in the Mirror," Jackson had not yet been hit with any of the spectacularly awful accusations that would dog the last years of his life: accusations of child sexual abuse. And when Jackson was implicated in the sexual molestation of a 13-year-old boy in 1993, he settled with the family out of court. Rather than accompanying the settlement with a promise to change, Jackson maintained his innocence throughout his life. When he was charged with child molestation again in 2004, Jackson again insisted he was innocent and was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges in a circus of a trial.
In a relatively lowbrow twist on the "see how I'm changing my ways" motif, Chris Brown – the hip hop star who admitted in 2009 to beating his girlfriend, pop singer Rihanna – made direct use of "Man in the Mirror" in a 2010 publicity stunt. Brown, who lost both friends and record deals over his abusive behavior, was nonetheless granted the honor of dancing and singing in the BET Music Awards Tribute to Michael Jackson. When it came time to sing "Man in the Mirror," Brown broke down sobbing before he even could start singing, seemingly showing his sensitive side. Although opinions on Brown's character differ – and it's true that some people do change – it's hard to watch this video without getting the impression that Brown is a) faking it, and b) more self-indulgent than sorry.
Was Michael Jackson a victim of his childhood and of a whole society mad on celebrity? Was he a victim of his own unstable mental health? Of soul-crushing media attention? Or was a he a spoiled pop star with no sense of reality?
Like some of his other hits ("Billie Jean," for example), "Man in the Mirror" shows the world a Michael Jackson who is thoughtful and generous, maybe even victimized by his own identity and by society. But in the context of his whole life story, this line about "a selfish kind of love" could take on a certain irony. We're talking here about a man who named all three of his children after himself (Prince Michael Jackson, Paris Michael Jackson, and Prince Michael Jackson II) and once referred to his first two kids as "presents" given to him by his ex-wife.
Jackson's most infamous forms of self-improvement were probably his plastic surgeries and his outrageous legal defense fees – what some would definitely call "a selfish kind of love." Indeed, when the singer went broke after his 2005 trial, he had to be bailed out by the pitying prince Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, who loaned him money and invited him for a long and luxurious stay in the small Middle Eastern country. In return, Jackson promised the prince an album on Al-Khalifa's own record label, part of a sweet deal involving a biography and a stage play. When Jackson disappeared without following through on his promises, Al-Khalifa sued him, leading Jackson into even deeper financial straits. Unable to pay off a $23.5 million loan owed on his Neverland Ranch in 2008, Jackson was forced to auction off some of his most valued goods. But at the last minute, Jackson sued to prevent the auction of his famous crystal gloves. No doubt by time he died, MJ's public image was of a man conflicted about his identity to the point of pathology.